Let’s Move Past Manufacturing. America Should Be The “Innovation Nation”

The United States may never fully recapture its manufacturing power, but it should do more to market its strength in innovation, writes RKS Design’s Ravi Sawhney.

Let’s Move Past Manufacturing. America Should Be The “Innovation Nation”

Today, many lament that the United States used to make great things but seldom does any longer, believing it’s no longer a major source of manufacturing and creation. One need only open the October issue of Fast Company, titled “The United States of Design” for a reality check. While manufacturing’s decline has been significant over the last two decades, I believe the emerging narrative that manufacturing in the U.S.A. is dying or dead is both misleading and overblown.


In fact, there is recent evidence that manufacturing has been staging a comeback, and others are excited by trends indicating that U.S. manufacturing may be due for a renaissance because of a myriad of issues that make it increasingly price competitive once again–increasing labor/production costs in China, American productivity, distribution, and currency issues, among others. That is good news and a reason for optimism that I feel compelled to share, to dispel many of the misconceptions being driven by the media and our current political environment.

It is true that the U.S. has over time ceded the manufacture of certain types of goods, and perhaps the loss of repetitive production tasks to lower-wage regions is partially inevitable, driven by the global distribution of customers and the desire to minimize distribution costs. However, in doing so we’ve also ceded the recognition and esteem that accompanies America’s continued leadership position when it comes to the development of products and services, and creation more generally. Many have forgotten that the country’s well-educated, culturally diverse, and productive workforce help make the U.S. a leader in innovation, even if it’s now running in a global race.

With the economy becoming more service and information based, what if manufacturing never fully recovers? That’s a real possibility and requires that we devise a strategy that best capitalizes on America’s current role in creating patents, products, services, scientific discoveries, and much more. It is my belief that the country needs a better effort on both the federal and state levels, partnered with commerce officials and corporations, to properly highlight our creative role in the 21st century. This is a basic part of branding that’s gotten lost on a macro level–and it might just support renewed economic confidence by a nervous citizenry.

German engineering means something to people, as does Italian design. The value association is no accident. American design means something, too, but we haven’t done a good enough job helping our citizens and the global community realize just how many innovations are initiated or designed in America. It is my belief that America’s melting pot continues to have the best of all worlds, from a design and innovation perspective, to be a point of leverage for creating business value. So how best can awareness of American innovation be increased on a global scale?

An effort is under way to help America become more innovative in the intellectual property area with the “first inventor to file” system, which will go into effect in March 2013. For those unaware, last month President Obama signed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, which will introduce a number of changes to the U.S. patent system and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office procedures beginning next September–as well as to fees, proceedings, reexaminations, and litigation. These changes will provide the much-needed protection that companies seek yet must wait too many years to receive. It’s the U.S. government’s way of taking steps to help innovators capitalize on their potential earlier than ever before, to accelerate the establishment of intellectual property and job creation.

I believe we should also expand the concept of country-of-origin labeling, to better match the age in which we compete. These labels are used not just as a way to differentiate products from competitors, but research has shown that they influence consumer perceptions of value. The effort could also help with domestic demand generation.


“Made in the USA” labeling has stringent guidelines, and while content must be disclosed on most consumer goods (autos, textiles, food, furs, among others), the system is not optimized to meet our needs today. Guidelines are pretty straightforward for labeling requirements in traditional manufacturing and for intellectual property where legislated or through treaties. Some might argue that the regulations are about as clear as mud–see 35 U.S.C. § 287(a) for the marking provisions of the patent statute. However, as we shift to other areas of creation, I believe the FTC system of labeling should be broader and its users better protected. The best approach would include designations such as “Designed in the USA,” “Discovered in the USA,” “Developed in the USA,” or “Produced/Edited in the USA.” Product, graphic, web, interaction, fashion, and other design fields would need to be intrinsically involved in the effort, to truly paint an accurate picture of American contribution physically and digitally. I know most would rally around the effort.

In a highly politicized environment, perhaps the most effective way to bring awareness to America’s role in creation would be at the state level. There is already evidence of state identity on products. Look at your iPhone–“Designed in California. Assembled in China”–and on a recent trip, a work colleague confirmed seeing many artisan stamps highlighting “Designed in Hawaii,” attempting to portray the state’s connection to products clearly manufactured overseas.

States vary dramatically in terms of their investment in and outputs from innovation, with California in a recent report being cited as the most innovative state in the nation. Other states would be well served by more local efforts. In fact, my home state of California has nearly 3.5 times the number of patents issued than in New York (#2) and Texas (#4), higher broadband deployment, and double the money spent in medical and scientific research grants. I wish companies took this reality into account when considering where they want to do business and create jobs. And there is more that California and other states could be doing to raise awareness.

Many in the public don’t yet comprehend how the design and development professions can help address cost mitigation and guide demand generation while offering disruptive innovations and incremental improvements. The profession is a powerful lever–currently underutilized–for economic growth and job creation. The profession could also be instrumental in such the large and important branding effort that I’ve proposed, which would help the U.S. regain the optimism and consumer confidence needed to reestablish our growth momentum.

[Top image by Poppy Thomas-Hill]

About the author

As the founder and CEO of RKS Design, Ravi Sawhney has spent more than thirty years at the forefront of product and technology innovation, and has grown his industrial design consultancy into a global leader in the fields of strategy, innovation and design. While leading RKS, Sawhney has helped generate more than 150 patents and over 90 design awards on behalf of his diverse list of international clients, and his work has been featured on the cover of Business Week’s best product design issue.